Usually museums, especially ones featuring contemporary works, inspire me. Alas, today’s visit to Thessaloniki’s Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art did not.
In part it was the collection itself—the color palette was largely blacks and browns, with rather grim subject matter/depictions. Mostly, though, it was the state of the facility.
When I paid our admission fee, I asked for a building guide. (I’d never been to a museum that didn’t have a floorplan brochure.) The woman behind the counter said they hadn’t had funds to print one for two years and instead gave me a quick description of the facility layout. She then asked me to please refrain from damaging or taking the artwork. “Um, okay,” I said, wondering if I needed to reassure her Husband and I were there to see the art, not steal it.
As we wandered through the exhibits, I understood the admission clerk’s request. While there was a chair in each room for a staff member (you know who I’m talking about; that uniformed guard who warns you off if you get too close to the artwork, talk too loudly, etc.), all of them were empty save for one. While its occupant kept her eyes on us as we walked through “her” room, she didn’t wear a uniform and later left without being relieved by a replacement, so I can’t be certain she really did work at the museum.
In fact, besides the woman at the ticket counter, I was able to positively identify only one other staff member. She alternated between hovering by the front door (to stop anyone trying to leave with a piece of art under his arm?) and darting into the gift shop whenever anyone walked in there.
The facility was in sad shape. The gardens around the entrance were overgrown, with the water feature covered by a skim of algae. Ceiling tiles had dissolved from water damage, light bulbs were out or missing, windows and floors were filthy. The artwork was dusty and many of the functioning pieces were broken. The gift shop offerings were sun-faded and referenced exhibitions of years past. A sadness permeated the space, as though it knew its glory days were long behind it.
On our way out I stopped at the ticket counter. “The economic crisis has been hard?” I asked the woman who had sold us our admission tickets.
She dipped her head in an embarrassed nod. “There is no money.”
I took twenty euros from my wallet. (Our admission was only eight for the two of us.) “For the building fund,” I said. She thanked me and tucked the money into the cash drawer. Under the watchful scowl of the other staffer, we left.
The signs of Greece’s economic plight are everywhere: shuttered shops, broken sidewalks, unemployed thronging one-euro sandwich shops. But it wasn’t until our museum visit did the depth of the crisis really hit home. I can only hope the recent reforms are effective and there is some debt relief. Otherwise I fear this lovely country will be in trouble for a while to come.